Scientific Study Suggests Internet Addiction May Cause Brain Damage

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Hardcore online gamer? Spending hours on end plugged into stuff like World of Warcraft daily? Pay close attention then. While none of what I’m about to relay is definitive, it does have the air of something serious, cautious and scientific. Call it pre-sobering, then.

Researchers in China and the United States recently published a study suggesting that so-called Internet addiction—especially where it’s occurring by way of online games and for extended periods of time—may lead to serious physical rewiring of the brain’s structures.

And here’s the unsettling bit: possibly not in a good way.

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We’ve heard about “Internet Addiction Disorder” or IAD for some time, but it’s a controversial subject. Scientists tend to be conflicted about the science behind it, or rather the lack thereof. That’s not to say it doesn’t exist, just that the methods, scientific definitions and longitudinal studies necessary to view any of this historically remain a work in progress. The underlying question seems to be whether Internet “overuse” is simply that—excessive use—or in fact a disorder, something decidedly more serious or “abnormal” in the hierarchy of human behavioral problems.

The researchers in the study set out to determine whether excessive Internet use had an effect on the structure of the brain itself, and in particular, to see whether duration of excess use impacted the brain in a quantifiable physical sense. Selecting 18 college-age students who met the self-assessment criteria for IAD (as defined by psychiatrist Kimberly Young in 1998), the research team focused on surface brain matter functionally tied to centers responsible for emotion, memory, motor control, emotion, sensory information, and speech.

The result: “white matter” as well as “gray matter” reduction in several areas by as much as 20%. Correlating that with similar matter shrinkage in nonhuman animal studies as well as what’s known about white matter’s connective properties, the researchers surmised the reduction in human brain matter could lead to impaired inhibition (your ability to control impulses), short-term memory damage, decision-making issues and reduced cognitive control of goal-oriented behavior.

Or then again, it may not be such a bad thing after all, according to Karl Friston, a scientist who helped create the brain imaging technique used in the study (though who wasn’t involved in the study itself).

“The effect is quite extreme, but it’s not surprising when you think of the brain as a muscle,” said Friston, speaking to Scientific American. Friston explains that our brains grow into our early teens, after which a “pruning” process begins to improve efficiency, thus he says “these areas may just be relevant to being a good online gamer, and were optimized for that.”

Next up? Confirming the results of the study, and no doubt refining the methodology for future ones. And while we’re waiting for actionable results, perhaps it’s worth invoking the old adage by Roman writer Petronius: “Moderation in all things, including moderation.”

MORE: Are Video Game Addictions Becoming a Bigger Problem?